Classes start at Middle Tennessee State University this week, and as nearly 26,000 students come back to campus, we in the College of Mass Communication find ourselves facing the perennial question, “Are we a trade school or are we an academic school?”
Although the question may seem like mere ivory tower rhetoric with no practical value, in fact, the answer strikes at the very heart of what we do and how our graduates will shape the future of our field for years to come.
It could very well shape what you the audience see and hear across all media forms.
The trade school approach emphasizes practical, first-day-on-the job skills such as writing and production. It’s the kind of thing where an editor or producer or director says, “What can you do for me today?”
It’s the kind of thing where a student says, “What do I need to know to get a job the day after I graduate?”
The academic approach, on the other hand, in addition to teaching skills courses, also teaches more theory and philosophy. It’s the kind of thing that asks, “What is the value of what I’m doing? What is the meaning?”
It also emphasizes course work outside the college.
And that surprises a lot of people, including new students.
We require, for example, students have a working knowledge of economics, history and science. After all, mass communicators do not produce messages for themselves; they produce messages for others to read and see.
Thus, it behooves us to know and understand not only how to write a message, but also what the audience wants and needs.
It’s true mass communication colleges teach day-to-day job skills. But, these skills are seasoned with the knowledge of why we do what we do, as well as what the impact of those messages will be on a wide variety of publics.
Freedom with responsibility is what this is sometimes called.
And that is what is at the heart of the American system of mass communication education today.